What is the story of migrant children demanding an apology from Switzerland?
Children of immigrants who have been coming to Switzerland to work for decades are demanding an apology for policies they say have destroyed families and shocked many.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of workers came to Switzerland, first from Italy, then from Spain, Portugal and what was then Yugoslavia.
They worked in factories, on the streets, on construction sites, in restaurants and hotels, and the Swiss economy and good infrastructure are undoubtedly also due to this.
But the system had flaws: the migrants received work permits for 9 or 12 months, many lived in barracks, and in Switzerland they only did work.
These seasonal work permits allowed a couple to work together in Switzerland, but did not allow family members, including young children, to stay, instead stipulating that their children must remain in their home country.
Egidio Stigliano, now in his 60s, remembers being taken by his grandmother to wave at a train from Italy to Switzerland when he was three.
He said: “I didn’t know my mum was on the train, they thought I was too young to tell me what’s going on, but my mum wanted to see me one last time.”
The system would have worked if the migrant workers were truly temporary, but their permits have been renewed year after year and some have worked in Switzerland all their lives.
Melinda Nag Obungi was only one year old when she and her older brother were left with their grandmother in Serbian Vojvodina.
Although the seasonal work permit requires going to Switzerland “without children”, Melinda’s parents hoped that once they settled in Switzerland they would be allowed to bring their children with them.
She said: “They wrote letters to the immigration police but their requests were denied, the police were very strict and I think that traumatized them for life, and of course us children too.” Melinda now believes that the migrant labor laws ” really destroyed our family”.
Many may wonder why distraught parents just don’t return home to see their children again. But as is often the case with migrant workers, the money they earn abroad keeps poverty at bay.
In Italy, Portugal and Kosovo, families and even entire villages are now dependent on money from Switzerland. In the meantime, the Swiss economy has recovered on the shoulders of foreign workers.
Christina Schulze, historian and immigration specialist at the University of Neuchâtel, points out that the Swiss system of recruiting workers from neighboring countries was very well received after the Second World War.
“These other countries were devastated by war, Switzerland needed workers and southern Italy was poor,” she says. “It was considered a humanitarian act to let them work in Switzerland.”
But many parents, including Egidio Stigliano’s parents, could not bear the separation from their children and devised secret strategies to deal with immigration restrictions. Instead of appealing to the authorities to let their children in, they smuggled and hid them.
Eguidio came when he was seven: “I hid in Switzerland from the first moment. My father couldn’t explain immigration policy to a child, so he just said don’t let anyone see you, just stay hidden and play along the forest, and that’s what I did.”
Going into hiding meant not going to school, and it meant that when Eguidio broke his arm, his parents had to seek out a silent doctor instead of going straight to the hospital.
But one day Eguidio met another group of children in the woods and he couldn’t resist joining them in their games.
That evening the police were at the door and told his parents that the child had to go. He was only allowed to stay when the chief of Eguidio’s father intervened, who agreed that the child should remain in the country under his care.
It is estimated that thousands of children were hiding in Switzerland in the 1970s. Today there is an exhibition about her life at the Watch Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
Some mothers admitted to locking their children in their homes during the day to ensure nobody could see them, while the children were allowed to play at night.
Many families lived in small apartments because, as the exhibition shows, a larger, family-friendly apartment was more suspect.
“It’s hard to imagine children locked at home, living alone, without school. That’s recent history, it’s only yesterday,” said museum director Francesco Garofo.
Historian Christina Schulz found the children’s stories even more shocking given Switzerland’s post-war focus on family life.
She said: “That was the new ideology in Switzerland, the idea of the Holy Family that needed protection and women couldn’t vote in Switzerland until 1971, they weren’t supposed to work, they were home-at-home kids, so is the idea of systematically destroying the families of migrant workers is really amazing.”
Switzerland’s strategy is gradually being undermined. Migrant workers protested, local police officers and teachers tolerated “illegal” children in their communities, and some villages even set up underground schools for migrant children.
Famed Swiss author Max Frisch intervened in the conversation, writing: “We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”
The children, including Melinda and Egidio, began to join their parents. Melinda came back to her parents at the age of five, today she is a writer and musician in Zurich, and Egdio is a lecturer in neuroscience in St. Gallen.
In some respects they count themselves among the lucky ones: under pressure from Rome, children of Italian immigrants were taken in after their parents had worked in Switzerland for more than five years. Melinda’s parents finally found a sympathetic Swiss employee and were given permission to take their children with them.
The Children’s Prohibition Act remained in place, enforced haphazardly at times, and many families were divided for decades.
Finally, the seasonal work permit was revoked in 2002 when Switzerland agreed to follow the European Union’s policy on the free movement of persons.
Immigrant children are old today, and many of them, including Melinda and Eguidio, have formed a group demanding at least recognition of what they went through.
“First, I would like an apology from the Swiss state,” says Melinda.
“I want the story of the migrant workers to be included in the Swiss history books because thousands of families have suffered,” adds Eguidio.
Perhaps one can honestly come to terms with history and apologize for what Switzerland has already done for deporting Jewish refugees during World War II and snatching children from socially “problematic” mothers or families and sending them to work on farms where they are often abused.
Financial compensation was also mentioned, but Eguido thinks recognition is more important. “I can’t make up for the time I could have spent with my family or at school,” he said.
In a research project by Christina Schultz at the University of Neuchâtel and at the museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, I have already begun to re-evaluate history.
But for museum director Francesco Garofo, there is more at stake than confronting Switzerland’s past, and he believes the lessons can be learned for the future if Europe continues its often negative debate on immigration.
“In a rich country with thousands of children hiding without social rights, this is not the model that we want in Europe today, so we have to think about this kind of immigration option,” he says.
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